We are Marshall: County alums recall tragedy
As We Are Marshall comes to theaters this Friday, the much-talked-about movie is stirring the memories of local Marshall University alums.
Some of those alums were on campus the night of November 14, 1970. That night, the chartered jet carrying 75 peopleﾗincluding 37 Thundering Herd playersﾗcrashed three miles short of the runway at Tri-State Airport, near Huntington. All on board the planeﾗplayers, staff, supporters and crewﾗlost their lives in the crash that foggy, rainy night.
Cooktown native Grace Wigal, then Grace Moore, said a sense of shock and panic spread across the campus as students received news of the crash that night.
ﾓThere were girls down the hall from me who were dating football players, and I heard them start screaming,ﾔ said Wigal. ﾓI ran out in the hallway, and I couldnﾒt figure out what was going on. It was awful.ﾔ
When she opened her dorm-room window, Wigal said she could hear screams and sobs coming from all directions on Marshallﾒs campus.
ﾓIt was a universal wail,ﾔ she said.
Wigal, who had been in a sorority in the two years prior to the crash, knew several of the universityﾒs cheerleaders, and said she feared some of those friends were on the plane as well. She later learned that they were bumped from the flight in favor of taking team supporters and donors.
Two cheerleaders whom Wigal knew, however, lost their parents on the flight, having essentially traded seats with them.
ﾑIt was their first plane trip.ﾒ
Earlier that day, Rick Meckstroth, who now owns a home at Clawson, had been at a pub with friends, listening to the Marshall versus East Carolina University game on the radio. Marshall lost 17-14.
Meckstroth had plans for later that night, but they never happened. The players who lived on his floor werenﾒt coming back.
As a freshman player, Meckstroth and 12 other freshmen were not on the plane. According to NCAA regulations that were in effect until 1972, freshmen could not take the field in varsity games.
Meckstrothﾒs roleﾗand that of his fellow freshmenﾗwas limited to practices, in which they would play against their varsity teammates. It was something the freshman took seriously, Meckstroth said, as they saw it as an opportunity to vie for starting positions the next year.
The young linebacker never imagined he would make the next seasonﾒs first string as a result of such a tragedy.
ﾓThe boys that got killed were some of the best players in the country,ﾔ said Meckstroth. ﾓThey were fantastic ball players.ﾔ
ﾓI was able to play with them six months before they got killed,ﾔ Meckstroth said, ﾓand I was recruited by them.ﾔ ﾠﾠﾠ
Four of the players were from Meckstrothﾒs hometown of Cincinnati.
As the players had prepared to leave for East Carolina, Meckstroth walked teammate and fellow Cincinnati native Mark Andrews to the bus. The team was looking forward to the game, he said.
ﾓEverybody was excited that day,ﾔ Meckstroth continued. ﾓIt was their first plane trip. They were going down to East Carolina. We only had one more game.ﾔ
After the crash, Meckstroth said only three people were left on the floor of the campus dorm where he lived.
ﾓI bet I went to 30 funerals,ﾔ he said.
One of the hardest things Meckstroth had to deal with was seeing the parents who would come to the dorms to pick up their sonsﾒ belongings.
ﾓThey wanted to know everything about their boys on that last day that you could remember,ﾔ Meckstroth said.
Through the grief, Meckstroth said, the freshmen and players who didnﾒt happen to be on the plane leaned on each other for support.
ﾓIn todayﾒs time, there would have been two dozen counselors there,ﾔ said Meckstroth. ﾓWe went through that misery by ourselves. We used each other to lean on and get through it.ﾔ
Coming back the following year was hard for Meckstroth and the other players. Across the campus through the rest of the year and into 1971, there was a palpable sense of loss.
ﾑIt was just so unreal.ﾒ
Walt Weiford, who graduated from Marlinton High School in 1969 and went on to Marshall, was familiar with many of the players who died in the fall of 1970.
ﾓI knew a lot of them by their names and who they were,ﾔ Weiford said. ﾓMarshall, even today, is kind of a compact campus. The kids that live on campus tend to see each other pretty regularly. I knew several of the players by seeing them daily.ﾔ
The first stranger Weiford met on campus as a freshman was the teamﾒs kicker, Marcello Lojterman.
ﾓI can still remember that first day on campus,ﾔ said Weiford. ﾓHe was just kicking field goals on the practice field, and I stood there and watched him for a while. Afterward, we just started talking.ﾔ
Thundering Herd center Allen Skeens was a a friend of Weifordﾒs roommate. They were both from Hurricane High School and played football together, Weiford said.
ﾓI couldnﾒt imagine anything like that happening,ﾔ said Weiford. ﾓIt was just so unreal.ﾔ
The sense of loss hung over the campus even as Weifordﾒs class graduated in 1974, he said.
For Wigal, Meckstroth and Weiford, the coming movie seems to be bringing some final resolution to that loss.
ﾓThe thought of it actually makes me feel kind of good that someone saw fit to remember and memorialize that event,ﾔ said Weiford.
Son of Marshall
Wigalﾒs pride in the film has a uniquely personal side to it: her son, who played football at Duke University and is now a graduate assistant coach at the Citadel, had a role in the film.
Mark Wigal won the Kennedy Award as West Virginia's top prep football player in 2001 when he led Morgantown High School to the Class AAA state championship. One of his coaches from Duke called and told him about the casting call for We Are Marshall, Wigal said.
Wigal, now 24 years old, flew down to Atlanta, where he tried out as a double for the actor playing Lucas Booth, the teamﾒs running back. In what he described as his ﾓfirst acting gig of any kind,ﾔ Wigal spent six weeks on the shoot in Atlanta.
Wigal said he was the only West Virginian on the set of the football action scenes.
ﾓI felt like I was representing West Virginia,ﾔ Wigal said. ﾓI was able to fill some people in on the story who really didnﾒt know about it when I was on the set.ﾔ
His mother said it was moving to see her son in a green and white uniform.
ﾓTo see him do that role in that movie has been closure for us for the whole episode,ﾔ said Grace Wigal. ﾓItﾒs meant a lot to us.ﾔ
Meckstroth, who saw the movie for the third time at its Hollywood premier last week, said the filmmakers got the story right.
ﾓYes, thereﾒs a little Hollywood in there, but the story and the truth is there,ﾔ said Meckstroth. ﾓTheyﾒve done a great job of portraying the things that happened.ﾔ
Meckstroth has run into dozens of former teammates at last weekﾒs premier and a recent premier in Huntington.
ﾓI saw boys I hadnﾒt seen in 35 years,ﾔ he said. ﾓIt was amazing. It has brought a lot of closure to these boys.ﾔ
The film and the continuing football program at Marshall, which has since had its share of bowl games and championships speak to the tenacity and courage of West Virginians in the face of hardship, said Wigal.
ﾓPeople were so proud that next year of overcoming adversity,ﾔ Grace Wigal said. ﾓI think itﾒs a statement to the West Virginia mentality. Itﾒs a testament to the people.ﾔ